Creative internet users replaced a row of tanks with rubber ducks to avoid censors on Weibo, China’s Twitter.
Culture

Tiananmen 30 years later: All the memes that Chinese people use to avoid censorship

Jun 04, 2019

Candles, a bouquet of flowers, a row of rubber ducks—all of these images by themselves might seem innocuous, but they’ve all been banned on the Chinese internet because of their connection to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Thirty years later, the democracy movement—and the Chinese government’s heavy-handed response to it—remain taboo topics in China. Most people born after 1989 have little to no knowledge of the crackdown, which left hundreds, possibly over 1,000, dead after the army took over the square.

This iconic photograph by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener shows a lone Chinese man standing in front of a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese army cleared the square.
This iconic photograph by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener shows a lone Chinese man standing in front of a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese army cleared the square. / Photo: AP

Every year on June 4, the anniversary of the crackdown, the government ramps up censorship, scrubbing social media platforms of any passing reference to the event and blocking websites like Wikipedia.

Even messages with the numbers “six” and “four” are subject to scrutiny.

This social media post uses stock market figures to subtly reference the Tiananmen Square anniversary. The figure 64.89 represents the date of the crackdown: 6/4/1989.
This social media post uses stock market figures to subtly reference the Tiananmen Square anniversary. The figure 64.89 represents the date of the crackdown: 6/4/1989. / Photo: Courtesy of Fu King-wa

But some mainland Chinese netizens remain determined to commemorate the event, coming up with memes and other creative ways to bypass censors and discuss the issue.

Fu King-wa, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school, has been collecting Tiananmen memes for the past eight years.

Cigarette boxes arranged to look like tanks have become a popular way to reference the Tiananmen Square incident.
Cigarette boxes arranged to look like tanks have become a popular way to reference the Tiananmen Square incident. / Photo: Courtesy of Fu King-wa

He and his team of researchers track about 50,000 accounts on Weibo, China’s Twitter, for Tiananmen-related posts. The accounts belong to figures they consider influential, including mainland Chinese journalists, lawyers, and academics.

The team tries to capture the images and preserve them before the censors take them down.

A row of ducks replaces tanks in this photo referencing Tiananmen Square. The Chinese caption reads, “A pack of cigarettes,” in reference to another Tiananmen Square meme.
A row of ducks replaces tanks in this photo referencing Tiananmen Square. The Chinese caption reads, “A pack of cigarettes,” in reference to another Tiananmen Square meme. / Photo: Courtesy of Fu King-wa

Some examples include a picture of four rubber ducks in front of a miniature human figure, which references the iconic photo of a man standing in front of a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square; a photograph of Chinese rock singer Cui Jian, who wrote the unofficial anthem of the student protesters; and a photograph of Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese pop singer popular in mainland China, who expressed support for the students during a concert.

This social media post shows Teresa Teng singing a song that memorializes the students who died at Tiananmen Square.
This social media post shows Teresa Teng singing a song that memorializes the students who died at Tiananmen Square. / Photo: Courtesy of Fu King-wa

Using a computer program, Fu’s team has identified more than 700,000 posts that were taken down or censored for various reasons, including 1,256 pictures related to June 4, 1989.

“These pictures represent a unique voice of Chinese people who continue to speak against the state’s discourse, even though their voice is eventually suppressed.”

Fu King-wa

“These pictures represent a unique voice of Chinese people who continue to speak against the state’s discourse, even though their voice is eventually suppressed,” Fu says.

Other censored posts include pictures mourning former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, whose death in April 1989 sparked the student protests against corruption and for democracy.

(Read more: The Pulitzer Prize-winning Chinese photographer who covered the Tiananmen Square protests)

Fu says that over the years, Weibo users have become more creative with their memes, and censors in turn have been screening posts more closely.

And while censorship software can pick out the more obvious words and elements related to Tiananmen—such as photos of influential figures, 6/4, and June 4—Fu believes some censoring is done manually because it would take specific cultural knowledge to spot images that might not seem objectionable at first sight.

Even this post discussing how Americans remember 9/11 was censored because it was uploaded on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Even this post discussing how Americans remember 9/11 was censored because it was uploaded on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. / Photo: Courtesy of Fu King-wa

Many internet users in China put up these posts knowing they will be removed, but Fu believes they continue to do it because they object to the government’s assessment that the Tiananmen crackdown was a necessary measure.

“Are they scared of suppression or negative consequences? After analyzing the censored posts, I believe it is not only a matter of bravery,” Fu says. “Many people still remember and are angry, and they are willing to speak publicly about it.”

For the 30th anniversary, Fu has compiled the captured memes into an art installation in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory where the Tiananmen Square events can still be freely discussed.

For the 30th anniversary, Prof. Fu King-wa turned the collected memes into an art installation.
For the 30th anniversary, Prof. Fu King-wa turned the collected memes into an art installation. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

He hopes to continue monitoring Chinese social media platforms for Tiananmen-related discussions and show that despite government censorship, there are people in the country who are willing to talk about it.

“I believe my job—and that of many others in Hong Kong—is to help marginalized voices be heard,” he says.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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